The last time Swarthmore saw a football team on its campus was the year 2000. After the team won just five games in five years and at one point had the longest losing streak in America, the Board of Managers decided to cut the football program to create more opportunities for incoming students with other passions. This lack of football changed on Friday night with the premiere of “The Kai’s the Limit,” an original comedy musical written by Marie Inniss ’23 and Hannah Sobel ’22, which prominently features the sport.
The show opens with Kai (Addie Klingbeil ’24), a junior at a small liberal arts college uncannily resembling Swarthmore, waking up early in the morning every day so that they can practice trumpet for a marching band that does not exist. When their best friend Sam (Mrinali Taskar ’22) compels them to get over marching band, Kai reaches the conclusion that the college will only allow them to start a marching band if they have a football team to accompany it. Logically, Kai then starts a football team, collecting a ragtag group of players. These include Sam’s love interest Lilli (Clare Mulligan ’25), a junior named Bif who has not spoken to a single person other than his mom since getting to college but longs to see his name in lights (Reid Mansur ’23), and a girl who crusades against the team until they promise to provide compostable balls, i.e., heads of cabbage (Whitney Grinnage-Cassidy ’24).
The team, full of passionate liberal arts students whom Sam has tricked into thinking they are playing for an unintelligible intellectual reason, faces one major obstacle: Kai knows nothing about football. Bif steps up and takes over the role because his father is a football coach, and he and Kai become close friends. Meanwhile, Kai and Sam have a falling out because Kai outs her as a lesbian to Lilli before she is ready to come out herself, and she is tired of their selfish behavior. The show comes to a head before the team’s first game when Kai tries to trick them all into becoming a marching band on top of a football team, and all of the players think the plea is a joke. Compost Girl ultimately reveals that all of the players are musicians in the same band class and have been practicing marches, a deus ex machina which allows Kai’s marching band dreams to come true. The show ends with positive resolutions for all of the characters, with Bif seeing his name in lights, Sam and Kai making up, and Sam and Lilli confessing their feelings to one another with an onstage kiss.
“The Kai’s the Limit” was an impressive accomplishment, especially considering that everyone in the cast and production crew was students. With a dynamic lighting rig, live music, and a full ensemble, it was abundantly clear how much effort and passion went into the show from the writing to the tech. The musical understood its audience — Swarthmore campus community members — extremely well, making light of “toxic aspects of liberal arts education” such as nonsensical controversies, and students trying to sound smart by using big words they don’t understand. Abetted by the actors’ energy, all of the jokes were genuinely funny and landed on a primed audience.
Sobel’s composing brought life to an already-entertaining musical, the music notably involving both traditional live theatrical instruments (piano, drums, and bass) and brass instruments more closely associated with marching band. “Bif” and “Bif Reprise,” specifically, had a hook that evoked band marches and was so catchy that I (Anatole) haven’t been able to get it out of my head for days. Most impressive were songs such as “I Love Football” and “Samthem,” which featured multiple characters singing in tandem to the same rhythm, emphasizing their togetherness.
Taskar and Mansur gave standout performances, respectively stealing every scene they were in. Taskar’s performance as Sam was so solid that it was surprising when the show’s program stated that “The Kai’s the Limit” is her first musical production since eighth grade. She played a realistic yet whimsical “straight man” (even though her character is a gay woman) to Klingbeil’s Kai, her own ridiculous denial about being gay balancing out her character’s ideological realism. Mansur also delivered an incredibly endearing performance as Bif, drawing cheers from the audience the second his character appeared dancing in his room in glittery pink robe. Additionally, though Grinnage-Cassidy plays a minor role with a character who doesn’t even have a real name, her gorgeous singing voice and upbeat acting proved that there are no small parts, only small actors.
Moreover, “The Kai’s the Limit” is one of the rare musicals that actually gets better in Act II. Act I mostly revolved around Kai tricking people into loving football, a plot which, while undeniably entertaining, was more exposition than commentary or character development. Act II, on the other hand, focuses more on the relationships between Kai and Sam, Sam and Lilli, and Kai and Biff. I (Anatole) found myself groaning during Act I when Kai declared themselves “the expert on all things queer,” an exhausting rhetoric which serves only to gatekeep people from the LGBT community. It was so refreshing when Sam not only calls them out on their bullshit (with regards to both tricking people into playing football and outing her before she’s ready to come out), but also sets healthy boundaries by telling them that though she will support them, she needs time to forgive them.
Act II also delivered some payoffs that left the audience smiling and cheering. The first was during “Bif Reprise,” during which the lights projected “BIF” onto the stage, realizing his dream of seeing his name in lights. Moreover, when Sam and Lilli overcame being “oblivious lesbians” and confessed their feelings to each other, their onstage kiss was a perfect alleviation of the tension between them throughout the entire musical. Both payoffs make it crystal clear that though on the surface “Kai” is a musical about marching-band-related hilarity, it is at its core a musical about celebrating queerness. Though queerness and pain are inextricably linked, it is so important that there exists media that also shows queer happiness without any of the characters having to suffer solely because of their gender or whom they love. “Kai” does this very intentionally, with a nonbinary protagonist who never has to justify or explain their gender, two lesbian characters who end up happy together, and a queer-coded male character who is celebrated for his duality in loving both football and music. The results are uplifting.
One aspect of the traditional musical experience which “The Kai’s the Limit” failed to deliver, however, was exciting choreography. The show’s choreography had some standout moments, like Bif’s dance moves in his character theme “Bif,” and a brief tap number in Act II’s “Bif Reprise.” In songs involving the full ensemble, however, the choreography was repetitive and not particularly compelling. The simple choreography specifically stood out due to the musical being centered around elaborate, complex, and crisp movement, which was not represented in the show.
The musical also did not effectively utilize the power of its ensemble, a variety of Swarthmore students who were cast this semester rather last, like the four principal actors. The ensemble appeared only in four songs, mostly to emphasize the joke that students at liberal arts colleges don’t know how to play football. Because of the sound mixing on the stage, it was often difficult to hear what the ensemble was singing. Though it was possible to understand the general gist of the songs, the instruments overpowering the singers’ voices meant that many of Sobel’s lyrics disappeared into the sound. To Inniss’s, Sobel’s, and choreographer Jenna Takach ’24’s credit, writing music for and choreographing the movements of fifteen people is easier said than done.
Finally, though “The Kai’s the Limit” is an admirable pun, the title is a misnomer. Kai, despite being the eponymous protagonist, is the least interesting character in the show. Between tricking well-meaning albeit pretentious students into joining a football team and their manipulative behavior towards Sam, they’re not someone the audience can conscientiously root for. Their tunnel vision towards their goals gives them a lack of depth compared to characters like Sam, Bif, Lilli, and even Compost Girl, who all have lives and feelings outside of their hobbies. Though the Act II song “The Kai’s the Limit” (roll credits) is a sweet moment for Bif and Kai to discover each other’s true passion for music, the Kai is ultimately not the limit. Though their passion led to the founding of the team and the marching band, the true “limit” lies with every person willing to follow them as a leader.
Though Sam, Bif, and Lilli’s character arcs reach natural and exciting conclusions, the high-concept premise of the musical — Kai starting a football team so that they can have their marching band — does not come to fruition in a compelling way. It works as a comedic device that all of the football players have been musicians the whole time unbeknownst to Kai, but the abrupt revelation does not match the more emotionally-driven tone of the second act. It is difficult not to think that at this point the story was blocked into a corner, this deus ex machina being the only way to resolve the story. Nevertheless, the other two payoffs bore fruit, and that’s not a number to sneeze at.
Overall, “Kai” was a wonderful way to introduce musical theater back to Swarthmore’s campus after the past year and a half’s theatrical drought. During the three virtual semesters, the COVID-19 pandemic sapped possibilities for students to participate in extracurriculars along with student motivation. In this, “Kai” is a much-needed return to form both in content and in and of itself. One special aspect of small LACs is that students are big fish in a little pond, not vice versa, and (with the motivation) there are countless opportunities to go forth and create. “The Kai’s the Limit” is a timeless reminder of the importance of doing just that.